Four passengers wait at a bus stop. One, an elderly gentlemen, grumbles about how this particular route is consistently late. A pair, a mother and child, sit and wait patiently. The final passenger takes out their cellphone and checks a mobile application offering live vehicle tracking and announces that their bus has a flat tire and is delayed. An alternative bus is being sent and will be there in 10 minutes.

In order for this scenario to take place, three things are required: a population of four, access to mobile phone technology, and a local government providing with a data infrastructure that’s both open and accessible to local companies. This data would then be used by developers to design a mobile application for riders capable to live tracking buses, provide updates when route changes occur and notify device holders when the next available replacement bus would be sent out. One key factor no longer required: that this scenario take place in a non-developing nation.

The United Nations Global Pulse Initiative is the latest example of development initiatives taking the form of investment into data infrastructure with a mission towards making sure big data is harnessed safely and responsibly. A 2013 estimate from McKinsey priced the value of open data at $3T in only seven sectors worldwide, ranging from energy to infrastructure investments (evidently polar opposites on the spectrum).

The focus upon transparency allows investments into data to (hopefully) yield a few key results, the primary of which is the rise of localized innovation. The aforementioned transportation app is such an example, as are targeted advertising campaigns based upon consumer spending habits. Others include the development of innovation labs and incubators that focus upon sprouting and supporting inspiration within local entrepreneurs. The hope is that access to data increases the resources businesses have to create credible tools.

For nations further along the data adoption curve, the story changes. Businesses have started to realize that the three V’s of big data (volume, velocity and variety) each play a key role in an ability to adapt. High volumes of varied data that lack velocity simply provide a stagnant screenshot – no massive help for our transit taking friends. This insight shows an unexpected problem: single data streams may not be enough to solve complex problems. Thus, the advent and rise of the ever-popular network effect.

A World Bank report published in 2014 discussed how data itself is no panacea. Sectoral expertise and an understanding of complex problems are needed to determine how data itself should be used – these are not insights any developer can be expected to possess. But data does show promise. Real time awareness of issues has practically applications in food security and urban planning. Tracking search results can create awareness of how quickly disease is spreading across a given region. And call detail records can be used to better understand the movement of refugees in a time of crisis.

As big data becomes ever more present in our lives, an uncomfortable discussion surrounding privacy must eventually occur. But that critical mass remains a ways in the future. For now, let’s content ourselves with simply knowing whether or not the bus we’re waiting for is ever going to show up.

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